BACKGROUND: During endocytosis in yeast, a choreographed series of discrete local events at the plasma membrane lead to a rapid burst of actin polymerization and the subsequent internalization of an endocytic vesicle. What initiates Arp2/3-dependent actin polymerization in this process is not well understood. RESULTS: The Schizosaccharomyces pombe WISH/DIP/SPIN90 ortholog dip1p is an actin-patch protein that regulates the temporal sequence of endocytic events. dip1? mutants exhibit a novel phenotype in which early events such as WASp localization occur normally but arrival of Arp2/3, actin polymerization, and subsequent steps are delayed and occur with apparently random timing. In studying this mutant, we demonstrate that positive feedback loops of WASp, rapid actin assembly, and Arp2/3 contribute to switch-like behavior that initiates actin polymerization. In the absence of dip1p, a subset of patches is activated concurrently with the "touch" of a neighboring endocytic vesicle. CONCLUSIONS: These studies reveal a switch-like mechanism responsible for the initiation of actin assembly during endocytosis. This switch may be activated in at least two ways, through a dip1p-dependent mechanism and through contact with another endocytic vesicle.